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Despite Our Differences
on 8 December 2016
This is a love story about Ifemelu and Obinze, star-crossed lovers who traverse time and space (both geographical and cultural) and eventually journey apart. Perhaps not that spectacularly different from the trajectory of countless other love stories, but Adichie's novel stands apart for its bold, full frontal assault on racial issues.
Ifemelu is the titular Americanah, returning to Lagos, Nigeria, after shutting down her blog and a breakup. As she sits in a hair salon, getting her braids done, she reflects on her relationship with Obinze, whom she had left behind in Lagos, and become estranged with after a traumatic episode she suffered while she was a young postgrad in Philadelphia, and the backstory of their young love and her journey to the States ensues. The narrative weaves seamlessly through the past and present, and occasionally focuses on Obinze, though Ifemelu is clearly the main focaliser of the story.
Through Ifemelu's controversial blog on race relations in America, Adichie discusses weighty issues that Ifemelu confronts as a kind of insider-outsider where she is suddenly made aware of her skin colour and difference from African Americans, and the befuddling contradictions that go with asserting her identity. The contents of Ifemelu's blog, which are interspersed throughout most of the novel, is an effective way of broaching these issues without becoming too preachy or derailing the narrative.
Ifemelu is also struck by the attitudes of fellow immigrants from Nigeria. She observes of some online writers and what they would do after visiting their hometowns on hard-earned savings: "Afterwards, they would return to America to fight on the Internet over their mythologies of home, because home was now a blurred place between here and there, and at least online they could ignore the awareness of how inconsequential they had become."
As a novel that details characters' cross-cultural experiences, it is easy to lapse into caricature and generalisations, but Adichie succeeds in presenting a nuanced account which is both moving and thought-provoking.